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What is a “public place” under the public lewdness statute? People v. McNamara, 78 N.Y.2d 626 (N.Y. 1991)


Public lewdness in New York refers to intentionally exposing private body parts or engaging in lewd acts in places accessible to the public or where one might reasonably be observed by others. This includes public streets, parks, transportation facilities, and other areas where individuals gather or pass by. The intent to be observed is not always required, but the conduct must occur in a location where it could reasonably be observed by others, potentially causing offense or alarm.

In People v. McNamara, 78 N.Y.2d 626 (N.Y. 1991), the defendants faced charges of public lewdness in Buffalo, New York, for engaging in sexual acts within parked cars. The central issue revolved around whether these acts occurred in a “public place” as defined by the law. The court’s decision sheds light on the interpretation and application of statutes concerning lewd conduct in public settings.

Background Facts
The incident involved several individuals engaging in sexual activities inside parked cars in residential areas of Buffalo. Police officers observed these acts and filed criminal informations against the individuals, charging them with public lewdness. The informations alleged that the acts occurred in public places, but the defendants challenged this assertion, leading to a legal dispute over the interpretation of the law.

Whether the acts of public lewdness took place in locations considered “public places” under the law. The defendants argued that the circumstances did not meet the criteria for public lewdness because the acts were performed in parked cars, which they contended were not sufficiently public to warrant prosecution under the statute.

The court affirmed the dismissal of the charges against the defendants. It held that the factual allegations in the criminal informations were insufficient to establish that the acts occurred in public places as required by the law. Despite engaging in lewd conduct, the defendants could not be prosecuted for public lewdness because the locations where the acts took place did not meet the legal definition of “public place.”

The court’s decision hinged on the interpretation of the term “public place” in the statute governing public lewdness. While the law did not explicitly define “public place,” the court examined the legislative intent and the purpose behind the statute. It concluded that the locations where the acts occurred, namely parked cars in residential areas, did not qualify as public places under the statute.

The court rejected the prosecution’s argument that the mere presence of the parked cars on public streets constituted a public place. Instead, it emphasized the need for objective circumstances indicating that the lewd acts were visible to passersby, aligning with the statute’s aim to protect public sensibilities.

The court’s decision in this case clarified the requirements for prosecuting public lewdness in New York. It underscored the importance of considering the objective circumstances surrounding the location of the alleged lewd conduct in determining whether it occurred in a public place.

The distinction between lewd conduct and public lewdness is worthing noting. Lewd conduct refers to behavior that involves exposing private or intimate parts of the body or engaging in sexual acts in a manner that is offensive or indecent. It can occur in various settings, including private spaces such as homes or public places like parks or streets.

On the other hand, public lewdness specifically pertains to lewd conduct that occurs in locations considered public under the law. These locations typically include areas accessible to the general public, such as streets, parks, or public transportation. The defining aspect of public lewdness is that the offensive behavior takes place in a setting where it can be readily observed by others, potentially causing discomfort or alarm.

While lewd conduct may occur in both public and private settings, public lewdness charges are contingent upon the conduct happening in a public place. In other words, engaging in lewd behavior in the privacy of one’s home would not typically lead to public lewdness charges, whereas similar behavior in a public park could result in such charges due to the public nature of the location.

The distinction between lewd conduct and public lewdness lies primarily in the context of where the behavior occurs. Lewd conduct encompasses a broader range of behaviors that are offensive or indecent, regardless of the location. Public lewdness, however, specifically addresses instances of lewd behavior in public places, emphasizing the potential impact on public decency and sensibilities.

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